I think it was the August day about two years ago that it finally hit me: I wasn’t supposed to be a farmer. Since the forecast for the afternoon was for a high of 115 degrees – they didn’t even bother to note what it “feels like” – I set out for the barn early in the day. My tractor, which I had named “Jim’s Higher Plower,” was waiting for me. Together we were gonna trek out to the pastures to rid them of the sea of thistles that had taken over in the unrelenting drought. It was at least theoretically possible that it would one day rain again in Central Texas and that the coastal Bermuda grass would re-emerge. And if that ever happened I could bale the hay, which would otherwise be ruined by the thistles, and stop paying $125 per round bale to be trucked down from Oklahoma to feed to the scrawny longhorns. (These cows, if you don’t know, serve the sole purpose of causing citified passersby to exclaim, “Oh, wow, cows.”)
So out to the barn I went. The crackling bristles that were once green grass sounded like my morning Rice Krispies beneath my Nikes. I climbed up into the bucket seat of my orange Kubota, choked her and turned the ignition. Nothing. Not a murmur. My father-in-law had told me I’d need a new battery one day soon. This was that day.
Well, true, this was a bad start to the day, but surely it couldn’t get much worse. Wrong. A dead chicken would follow, killed by a skunk, no doubt. Then a wheezing in the air conditioner would develop. Then we found what the buzzing we’d heard yesterday was: killer bees in the wall. Frustrated, I went to the well house area and did a 360-degree spin with my arm pointed straight out. There was no part in the sweep that I didn’t point to a problem, something that needed to be repaired, replaced or painted.
About that time a very good friend of ours – who had just moved from our little 5,000-population town to a 250,000–population college town – called us. “Jim, you gotta move up here; you can’t believe this place: great grocery stores, restaurants of all kinds, movie theaters – two of them. They got museums. They got parks with running trails. They got a Sam’s and there’s rumor a Costco is in the works. They even got sushi at midnight!”
“What about our friends here, though,” my wife said. “How do we replace them?”
“Are you kidding?” I replied. “It’s a college town. They’ll have Ph.D.’s and retired Ph.D.’s. They’ll have continuing education courses, creative writing programs and all sorts of volunteer possibilities. If we have made a bunch of friends in a 5,000 person town, we’ll make 50 bunches in the bigger town.”
That was the logical principle, the principle of multiples, right? If one small X causes one Y, then 50 times X should deliver 50 times Y.
Only, that’s not what we observed when we moved to the larger town. Oh, everybody was nice, polite as Emily Post. But they didn’t seem to be connected to one another, nor did it appear, to us. At least they weren’t connected in a way our small town friends and we had been connected to one another. One of those good friends, a retired admiral, baled my hay for me once when my Kubota was down for the count; another, an ex-F-4 pilot, arranged a surprise flyover of five Cessna Skyhawks for our son’s West Point going-away party.
That’s when I conducted my armchair-of-an-afternoon research in my new neighborhood. Over a two-month period I counted all the times a house in my cul-de-sac had more than one car visiting at the same time. The theory? If anyone here is truly connected he or she will certainly have multiple visitors at least once in a while. Conversely, if there are few multiple visits, there must not be much true connectivity.
Results? During the 60 days and nights of the sample, 15 cars foreign to the neighborhood paid single visits to some of the 16 houses; exactly one time did more than one car visit a house at once. And that time, most of the six visiting cars had the ichthys symbol on their tailgates and a particular Baptist church decal in the window, signaling a meeting of the vestry or some church committee.
I concluded the theory of multiples did not apply to friendships. It’s not like traffic: the more people, the more traffic there is. In fact it’s the opposite: the more people in a location, the less need there is for hearts and minds to bind, to conjoin. But isn’t this obvious? Tribal members are surely more like families than, say, harried pedestrians on the streets of Manhattan. In fact, it may be that the plethora of museums, restaurants, parks, grocery stores, as well as superficial but cordial encounters with others, all actually diminish the need for good friends. How so? This hubbub of busyness supplies a simulacrum of close human contact.
So we put our new house up for sale, got a contract on it for full price and found just the right house in our old small town. We will be going home three weeks from now.
My bigger-town neighbor, Greg, warned me the other day, “Jim, you know you can’t go home again.”
I answered, “Greg, we never left.”
By the way, I never did try out the sushi at midnight.
Jim Austin is the retired CEO of the Houston International Festival and will soon be moving back to La Grange, Texas, with his wife, Kathi, and their black Lab, Molly.